One River artists’ talks facilitated by Dr George Main
Andrew Hull, Vic McEwan and Bill Marsh with Dr George Main, 25 August 2013
KIRSTEN WEHNER: [George Main is going to facilitate this next panel session.] George is a curator and in the People and the Environment program here at the National Museum of Australia. George is a curator and environmental historian who grew up near Cootamundra, close to the watershed of Lachlan and the Murrumbidgee rivers. He has a long standing interest in the Murray-Darling Basin, having worked with communities in many parts of it to explore the history and he has also developed a wide range of Basin collections for the Museum - you saw quite a few of them this morning. George’s interests focus on the way in which museums can help build resilient communities in the context of climate change and ecological crisis. He is currently working on a new project called ‘Food Stories’, which aims to connect communities, collections, and histories of food production. Please join me in welcoming George. [applause]
GEORGE MAIN: I will not talk for very long and try to leave lots of time for questions. I’ll quickly introduce our three distinguished panelists this afternoon and then talk a little bit about a collection that the Museum brought in last year associated with the topic of One River, communities and contestation and so on.
On my left is Vic McEwan. Vic is one half of the Cad Factory, which is a dynamic artist-run space located near Narrandera in the Riverina region of New South Wales. The Cad Factory develops and presents an ambitious range of projects in diverse creative media. For One River, Vic and Sarah McEwan, and Sarah is the other half of the Cad Factory, developed a project called Tipping Point. Some of you would have seen a great film from that last night exploring the interconnectedness of lives and places across the Murray-Darling Basin. The climax of Tipping Point was a projection and installation event using the ruins of an historic brewery on the outskirts of Narrandera. We’ll see some photos of that brewery in a minute.
Next to Vic is Bill Marsh, also known as Swampy, is a celebrated and award-winning author, storyteller, performer and playwright, best known for his popular collections of great Australian stories which focus on various aspects of outback life. For One River Bill developed a compelling series of ‘first-voice’ stories recording diverse perspectives from people with lifelong connections to the Coorong and Murray Lakes region of South Australia, presented as part of a multifaceted project called Alluvial Connections. Again, those of you at the arts centre last night would have had a taste of that one.
Beside Bill is Andrew Hull. Andrew is a prolific artist, news columnist, poet, songwriter and photographer based in Bourke in western New South Wales. For this project, Andrew has undertaken an ambitious project called Notes on a River, capturing stories from remote communities across the upper catchment of the Darling River. He has been involved in several creative teaching and community-based arts projects in outback New South Wales and Western Australia. Last night some of your lanterns were looking very beautiful floating on Lake Ginninderra and holding stories from the other side of the Basin.
I will quickly launch into a bit of a talk about this collection. Last year the Murray-Darling Basin Authority donated to the Museum a collection of protest material. They had collected this material at community consultation meetings between 2010 and 2012. We’ve seen photos today of those fiery meetings that were held to foster discussion about the authority’s proposed Basin plan in the lead up to the finalisation of the Basin plan, which happened last year.
What is really interesting about how the authority initially went about developing their proposed plan, which the meetings were held to discuss and draw the community into - and this is in their own words - was that they developed the proposed plan by bringing together the best available scientific knowledge and information. They made it quite clear that they were relying on scientific and bureaucratic systems of knowledge and hadn’t really attempted to engage with the localised and emotional realities of people’s lives. I think they learnt the consequence of that very partial way of looking at human, land and water interactions through purely a scientific frame during those consultations.
After those protests, the authority announced what they called a ‘fresh Start’ and a process of re-engagement, and started talking very much about localism and fine grain solutions that were developed in partnership with communities. What is really interesting and significant about this collection is how the expressive material character of the objects themselves played a powerful role in that process. So the people who made them chose images, colours, materials and fonts that swiftly conveyed very concise and targeted messages to the public to provoke responses from the government that address their interests.
That reveals something too - that we’re interested in here in the Museum and that’s really come up today in the talks - about how places and other species are really quite active and forceful in the relationships that people have. It’s not just people who are responsible for these relationships but it’s people living in places, experiencing places and encountering other species that build those connections.
We might launch straight into Vic’s talk. He will talk for about 10 minutes. Then we will launch into a couple of questions before we move on to Bill.
VIC McEWAN: Thank you very much, George. As George mentioned, my wife Sarah, who’s sitting over there with the red top, and I - we don’t always wear the same colours but sometimes we do - have lived in Birriga, which is in the Riverina between Narrandera and Wagga Wagga, for nearly four years. Before that we lived in the industrial area between Marrickville and Newtown [in Sydney], so we went from living in a factory with forklifts out the front at 4 am, and just under the flight path, to living somewhere where the nearest house is five kilometres away and it takes us half an hour to get to a shop. It’s been a very big change for us. Maybe it’s something to do with living in extremes, it’s a change that happened very easily, and we haven’t noticed the change in a way.
Since we’ve been living there we’ve been developing a whole bunch of artistic projects, inviting artists internationally and from Australia to come and make projects in the region that engage with our landscape and with our community. When the idea for One River came to our attention, we didn’t really have a connection to the river system before we moved to the area, we were both very much Newtown musicians living in the inner city of Sydney. But then over the last four years we’ve been understanding the river system, we’ve been understanding farming, the irrigation channels. This project allowed us to delve deeply into that and allowed the community to educate us about the river system and what it means.
In our arts practice we have our individual arts practices which are quite experimentally based, and then we do a lot of community-based projects. In those community-based projects, we’re not so much interested in community arts, but instead about creating community through the arts. A lot of our projects are about bringing people together and about that sharing of community, especially in the region where we live where there are issues with isolation and that sort of thing.
When we decided to do Tipping Point, because we do a number of community-based projects, we decided to really target particular people in the community. We identified five individuals in our community that we wanted to speak to about their relationship to the water system. These included: Cedric Briggs, a local Aboriginal elder, Narrandera’s eldest elder; a water lawyer who talked to us about water as a tradable commodity; the ex-mayor of Narrandera who talked about his journeys when the drought was on, and him trying to sell water. I’ll tell you more about his story a bit later. We also interviewed people about sustainable farming practices and industrialised farming practices, and also more whimsical stories about growing up on the river system.
When we did those interviews we audio recorded them and then we wrote a series. Each interview became a full-page story in the local newspaper. That ran over eight weeks. There were some introduction stories. So that was a real way to engage the community in whole process as we were making it. When we started the first story, we were still devising what the outcome was going to be. We were trying to share the story with the community. So the whole community went on this eight-week journey with us where strangers were stopping us in the street and saying, ‘We love the stories that you’re writing in the newspaper.’ It was working as a community engagement tool. Although we really targeted those five individuals, we were engaging the whole community in the sharing of those stories.
[image shown] This was a site where we made our work. This is the old Oakbank Brewery which was built on the banks of the Murrumbidgee, which is just behind those trees, in the early 1900s. It stood for some time as a ruin. It’s five storeys tall, 26-odd metres tall. This building has just been bought by a couple in Narrandera. Lots of rumours had been spread around town of ‘somebody’s about to build an apartment block’, and ‘there’s a skyscraper about to go up where the old brewery was’.
When we met the owners of this place, we were looking at different ways to share our outcome. We started talking about this brewery, learning about its relationship to the river system as a building, and also the importance of this building had to the township of Narrandera. And also because it was about to become privately owned, this family are going to build a house there, it was about to change in terms of the community interaction with the space. For all those reasons, we decided to make a work that was projected onto this building.
We made a show that lasted just under 50 minutes that people came to - 400 people came from the community and they had a picnic by the banks of Murrumbidgee for an hour beforehand as the sun went down. Nature is the best lighting designer, so they had that whole change from daytime and sunset and then as it got dark enough the projections appeared and everybody sat for 40-odd minutes and watched it as a show from beginning to end.
[image shown] This is Uncle Cedric Briggs. He told us his stories about growing up on both the Murray and the Murrumbidgee Rivers. He told us about his recollections of the Cummeragunja Mission walk-off as a 12 year old. We’ve heard stories about that mission walk-off before, but I haven’t heard stories from a 12-year-old’s perspective. He would share with us stories about overhearing the elders talking about how they’re going to walk off, and how he thought it was fun that everyone was jumping in the river to swim, but they were really jumping in the river to get away from the mission.
He told us that middle picture is a picture of a bora ground which was near Darlington Point, a ceremonial ground was the biggest in the region. Now I believe there is a post office or some sort of building on that sacred land there in Darlington Point.
We interviewed Cedric and we cut his 110 minutes of audio recording down to a succinct five-minute story, we were having issues with the fact that we didn’t feel it was correct for us to be illustrating his story ourselves. So we went into the local high school, and worked with four Aboriginal students. We took Uncle Cedric in, and he spoke to the students for a couple of hours about his life story. Then he had to leave, and we stayed with them. We played them the five-minute audio section that we’d we cut down, and they illustrated the entire thing. We left that day with a pile of papers that the lady in the office scanned in as PDFs for us. Then we took them home, photo-shopped them and animated them. We got to share Uncle Cedric’s story.
It was the first time an elder has ever been in to Narrandera High School. The students were really excited. To see that cultural connection really strongly was a part of that project that we weren’t aiming for. So hopefully from now on there’ll be some more elder visits into the school.
[image shown] When we interviewed the ex-mayor of Narrandera, he explained that during the drought Narrandera was in a lucky situation where they had a licence for both water under the ground and water in the river so Narrandera actually had plenty of water in the township. He was trying to arrange a deal where he could sell that water, but the government wasn’t allowing him to do that. Then the nearby town of Barellan ran out of water. He was wanting to ship some of Narrandera’s water up the system to Barellan, and again the state government wouldn’t allow that to happen. He threatened to call 60 Minutes with photographs of dying cattle unless they would allow him to give this water to Barellan. I think within four hours he had that official permission and, however water is transferred, it was allowed to happen. He talked at length about the emotive images of cattle dying from thirst.
[image shown] This is another photo of a local lady. It’s actually Uncle Cedric’s daughter-in-law, a white lady, and she grew up on a camp in a shed by the river. That’s her as a child, with her mother tending the family, keeping all the shirts white, whilst living down by a river system. This to us was an interesting reflection point about the river as a home, an actual literal home where people have lived and maintained families while people got off to work. It’s an interesting photo to reflect on, I think.
As we’re in the Riverina, when we decided to make the work of Tipping Point we couldn’t avoid discussions about irrigation systems and the Murray-Darling Basin plan. That troubled us for a little while in: How do we address such a big issue, when we ourselves don’t have a long history with the river system and we’re really learning it from the people that we meet?
At the same time, I was working on two other projects. One was a project with SunRice at the newly re-opened Coleambally SunRice mill, which is a project that will happen in September. That was shut because of the drought and just opened again last November. I’m also working on a project with the community in Yendah, which was flood affected in 2012 and they’re just returning to their towns. I’m working with them now as people return.
All of a sudden I was working on these three projects that all had something to do with water. When I was in Yendah and when I was in Coleambally with SunRice I would always bring up the Murray-Darling Basin plan just to get some more insight for our Tipping Point project. I would speak to farmers and they would mostly be completely anti the plan. In trying to hone that down into why, what I found repeatedly on nearly every occasion was that they couldn’t relate to me what it was in the plan that they were unhappy about or what they were fearing, it was just that they feared it because they didn’t feel they could trust the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. They didn’t feel that they understood the document enough so they feared it.
The same in Yendah with the flood that happened in Yendah. There’s a class action against Murrumbidgee Irrigation because Yendah is not on the river, it’s on the irrigation channels, and that’s where the water came from. That’s a complex issue about why those floods happened. The community in Yendah are really angry at Murrumbidgee Irrigation because of their lack of communication since the floods and because they haven’t spoken to them nearly a year later.
What I was hearing from people from SunRice, from speaking with people about Tipping Point and from people in Yendah was it always came back to communication. They didn’t feel they were being told things; they didn’t feel they had an avenue to find out correct information; and they didn’t always trust that. That was universal across those three projects, which was something really interesting to take on board for all those things and to take on board just in general.
We also collected a series of protest signs that are still around the Riverina. Some of these signs are in Griffith and on the way out to Deniliquin, five kilometres from Finley. These are still common around the area.
This is another interesting thing. When we moved to the area there was a lot of suspicion of, ‘These artists have moved to Birriga, What are they doing here?’ I would meet farmers and they would say, ‘Come over for dinner. We just killed this sheep. Would you like some?’ We would say, ‘We’re vegan. We haven’t eaten meat for 25 years.’ We’d keep that secret as long as we could, but it came out eventually. But we’d often have reactions like, ‘Oh, you’re a greenie, are you?’ We would mention just our preferences around food, and even before we’d get into why we have those preferences, this word ‘greenie’ came up almost as a derogatory term and just the whole ideology of cliché of what they think, ‘A vegan must be a greenie, they probably protest a lot, and they’re probably this, and they’re probably that.’
To me there was a little bit of personal wicked humour for me to see these protest signs, and to see people who you wouldn’t expect to be the typical protester out there really passionately protesting. That was a humorous thing that I took from it: they’re now the greenie, they’re protesting, although a different sort of issue.
We presented this all in a series of video projections. [image shown] This is in Yendah at the Casella Wineries that make Yellow Tail wine, which is vegan, by the way, that wine. [image shown] This was an image from the actual night of projections. These feet of this farmer, who lives next door to us and is a sustainable farmer doing a lot of amazing things with sustainable farming practices, and they’ve been on that farm for many generations, his feet slowly walked across this red earth that we had projected on the brewery as a sign of man’s impact on the land as we walk across it. That’s it in still form. That’s not my picture. That was how we presented the work. [applause]
GEORGE MAIN: Thanks, Vic. Just before we go to questions, I thought it was really interesting what you were saying about how people feared the document. I’ve actually got a copy of the document. It’s a very big document, it’s weighty, it’s expensively produced, it’s got a big, square spine and it’s full of glossy photos, tables and graphs. My understanding is that the authority released it only days before they started the community consultation. Really that horrible book-burning scene – it was almost inevitable that people just did not have the time or the capacity to absorb what was in that document.
VIC McEWAN: Some really interesting feedback that we got from this project: there were all these differing opinions that we’re being told and how do we present that in a 45-minute artwork without taking sides, without highlighting one as being better than the other. It was probably one of the most difficult tasks that we had. After the event we were getting emails from, for example, the local fisheries commending us on the sharing of all these stories. What we were trying to do with this event was to have a platform for sharing where actually the different viewpoints can be discussed and they’re being discussed – and it’s not a battle; it’s just a point for actual discussion.
GEORGE MAIN: So now as promised there’s an opportunity to ask questions.
QUESTION: Hello. I’ve just got a comment to make and I was just wondering if the panel could maybe answer it. It’s a really funny One River moment that happened last night when I was in the green room. Three of the choir members were sitting on chairs, and I overheard one of them say to the other two, ‘It’s those bloody farmers. They’re going to ruin the river.’ I was just wondering if you guys could comment on that from your different regions, how farmers are within those regions, and if they’re going to ruin the bloody river.
GEORGE MAIN: I’m not really on the panel but if I can quickly make a comment. One real problem is that the loudest voices in the rural sector seem to represent their sector as unified, and of farmers being beyond criticism. I think there is such diversity in the farming community. There are people who are doing the most extraordinary - bringing their land back to life, like Kim was talking about today and like Graham Strong, whose legs are on that picture, and there are others who might not have the institutional support, might not have the education and financial resources, they’re in debt, or they just don’t care. Farmers aren’t a unified bloc. In some ways, their spokespeople could take a much more complex approach and acknowledge some of the issues. Anyway, that’s just my view and I’ll pass on to others.
VIC McEWAN: Do I think that the farmers are going to ruin the bloody rivers? As I said, we don’t come from regional Australia originally so we’re learning all the time. From the time that I’ve spent out with Sunrise, the rice farmers and the farmers I meet, they all seem really passionate about water use and the environment and making their industries sustainable. I’m still learning and I don’t think I have a definitive answer. But from what I can see a lot of these farmers are trying to devise methods because they rely on the land. That’s probably all my comment.
BILL MARSH: A lot of ours were fisher people who are primary producers who thought that the water was precious, and that was where they made their living. So they were looking after it the best that they could possibly do.
ANDREW HULL: Where I’m at out in Bourke - I don’t know that it’s an altruistic type. I work in natural resource management for a catchment management authority that’s also involved with landcare. I think there are some people who always think, ‘Of course we’re doing the right thing, why don’t they know we’re doing the right thing. This is our land, we’re farmers. It is in our best interest to care for it.’ But there’s lots of other drivers as well - economics, like you said, and all these other things. There are people who are doing the best they can and there are people who are just getting by as well as they can, certainly not altruistically guided. There are lots of other drivers that impact this.
But I do think that the people who are doing the best they can do it with the best available knowledge. There’s a great anecdote that involves a project that we’ve worked on where we wanted to reinstate some snags into the Darling River, because it creates great native fish habitat. Native fish, if they’re given the right habitat, out-compete invasive spaces like carp and things like this. It’s this great project where we had to go and source all these snags, and it cost millions of dollars because of native vegetation laws and getting these things in the river. It was a huge process, which caused uproar in the community because it took away some of their skiing spots and what a waste of money essentially dumping trees back into the river. But we went through this process. It took a couple of years to do this one particular project.
The best knowledge we could come up with was that, if we put these snags back in the river, we’d get better water health basically. But during the course of all these reports that we’d written, we came across a whole series of reports from about roughly 100 years earlier where the Surveyor General was reporting back to the Governor of New South Wales about, ‘The wonderful de-snagging operations that were taking place on the Darling River up and down Bourke where using their best available knowledge they were extracting all of these snags that were impeding the flow of traffic and production up and down the river.’ They spent hundreds of pounds in those days, which was the equivalent of our millions of dollars these days, to do the same work with the best available knowledge. Sometimes you can look at these things with 20-20 hindsight and think, ‘What a shit-house job that we did,’ but we were doing the best we could at the time.
GEORGE MAIN: We’ve got time for one, quick question.
QUESTION: I would put the blame squarely at the feet of governments. We’ve had some really stupid government policies, well intended at the time but with absolutely zero insight as to what the environmental and ecological consequences of those policies might be. Number one was the requirement for farmers to clear land - it was a condition of being granted a lease. Nobody had a clue about the salt stores in our soils and that we were going to create this massive salinity problem. That’s one example.
Another really good one, particularly in New South Wales, is in the light of warnings being given to governments from people who drill bores, from irrigators, from all sorts of people, ‘You are taking too much water out of the system, stop, stop, stop,’ they kept on handing out irrigation licenses and telling people to use more water, when it was abundantly clear that we were heading for a cliff. This whole notion that it’s farmers’ fault is rubbish. Farmers are just out there trying to make a living and doing so within the policy frameworks that government set. I have no problem with farmers trying to feed their families and saying, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t put a fence up to keep my stock out of the river if I want to feed my family.’ It’s not a difficult choice to make if you’re in that position. But for governments to then expect communities to pay for the problem government has created is just laughable.
GEORGE MAIN: I think part of the problem too is that in Western society we tend to see people as acting independently, whereas no one acts independently, we all act within a society, and those actions determined by government policy, by economic constraints, by markets - and just to say that it’s all about individual agency is extremely simplistic. I will now hand over to Bill so that we don’t run out of time. He is going to speak from up here.
BILL MARSH: Good day. I’m not separating myself from these people here on purpose, it’s just that I have a few problems here. I was going to say I am a bit hamstrung at the moment, but that didn’t make sense - broken arms and the hamstring.
In the 1950s I grew up in the south west of New South Wales at a little place called Beckham, which had a population of 64 people. It was on the Marule Creek. I remember my connection to the river there was that the old fellows next door, I think it was every month with an ‘R’ in it, would go over and get the freshwater crays out of the river. Was it with the ‘R’ or without the ‘R’? I get a bit mixed up. They’d come back with wheat bags full of fresh water crays, and we used to sit around an open fire and get stuck into those. It was absolutely fantastic.
In the 1960s I actually ended up on the river. I went to an agricultural boarding school on the Murrumbidgee River. I actually learnt to swim in the Murrumbidgee River. Back then, my memory of it was that it was a very clear river. We used to fish in the river. As the school was on the river, we had sports events on the river. We irrigated from the river. Sir Samuel McCaughey, it was his property. He was one of the first irrigators in the Riverina area.
After that in the 1970s I went to Griffith where I worked for CSIRO in the department of irrigation research. Then I went overseas, came back, and got another job in Griffith at Viticulture Research. Griffith isn’t on the river, we had to go down to Darlington Point - Vic mentioned Darlington Point. We used to cut off to the right before we got the Darlington Point and go out the Carrathool Road. I remember going out there, and we’d be swimming at the beach out there to the strains of Don McLean’s American Pie. If you can nail whatever year that was, we were still swimming in the river then and enjoying it, having a ball.
Of course I didn’t have a clue about what was coming, even though I was working for the CSIRO irrigation research or the Department of Agriculture and we were talking water out, and in those days they were flood irrigating the properties around where we were living. The thoughts that we were taking out too much, too little or whatever never crossed my mind, I was having too good of a time. Then in the late 1970s I moved to South Australia to work in the wine industry, which I did for about nine years before I gave that up and I took up all of my hobbies, which were writing. The actual idea was to become rich and famous, but the only trouble is that nobody liked the stories I was writing and it was an economic disaster. It took about 15 years of plugging away.
I don’t want to focus too much on me but, when we did go around and interview these people, I could understand their persistence - these are the people around the Goolwa, Coorong lower lakes end of the river area. The four of us in our group went out and interviewed people. Margaret Worth was our coordinator. She organised the people for me to interview. They were a diverse group of people throughout the Coorong lower lakes and Murray Goolwa area. I didn’t do any research because I don’t like doing that when I go out and interview people. I just like to go out cold and pretend you’re sitting around at a pub having a chat to somebody and that whatever comes out is a complete surprise.
The four of us went out and we were all involved in the interviewing process. As I said, there’s Margaret Worth who I must mention is our keen eyed, diligent coordinator and artist of stage and set design; Richard Hodges, our sharp-eyed photographer extraordinaire; and Michelle Murray, our bright-eyed writer and magnetic performer - all of whom have worked above and beyond the call of duty. These 12 stories are on the One River website, but I’d just like to give you little snapshots of these people we interviewed because they were just amazing human beings. They all had a story to tell not only about the effects of the river on them but also the effects of themselves on the river.
The first one was titled ‘The Fight’ from Gloria and Henry James who had lived at Clayton, which is on Lake Alexandrina, for over 50 years. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority recently awarded Henry the river medal for outstanding service to the River Murray. It’s the first time a community member has received the award. Also, the Alexandrina Council presented both Gloria and Henry a 2013 Australia Day Award for outstanding community service. Henry is a fifth generation fisher from a fishing family up around the Renmark area. He moved down to Clayton in the early 1960s to set up fishing down there.
Clayton is on Lake Alexandrina, and it had a transient population of people that went there for holidays and for fishing. I think there were only five permanent people at Clayton at that time. There was a bloke called Claude Dent who lived up the road from Henry in a cave with about 30 cats. Henry reckoned that, if he ever went up there to have a chat with him, he had to be careful of the fleas. Then there was the Greenbottles who lived in an old ambulance down the other way. Henry said that, if you went down to have a chat to them, you had to be pretty careful because their ambulance was surrounded by rabbit warrens so you could end up down a rabbit warren.
Clayton was a pretty isolated place back in those days. It was about 10 miles to Milang, and you had to go over sand hills and corrugated tracks, and all that kind of stuff. Any form of travel was quite epic. In summer you were forever getting bogged in the sandhills, and in winter you were forever getting bogged in the mud. Greenbottle had it nailed though: he used to jump on his push bike twice a week and go into Milang to get a couple bottles of port. I asked Henry, ‘Did he ever bust any?’ He said, ‘Very rarely.’ Henry reckoned it was because of practice.
Anyway, to tap into the holiday makers Henry and his wife started up a little shop where they caught fish and the holiday makers would buy their fish. They’d sell ice creams and all that stuff. And they had yabbies all year round in Lake Alexandrina. From that Henry and Gloria built what was called The Yabby City, which became quite a famous establishment, even to their surprise because they didn’t even have a business plan. Gloria was the head chef, and she had never cooked in a restaurant in her life. They had a bottle shop and they didn’t even drink grog at that time.
They didn’t even have a telephone line, Henry had to build a telephone line himself across the 10 miles of sandhill scrub to connect up to the Milang line. He built it on a two-inch galv pipe, welded insulators on it, and ran some fencing wire along it - and it worked. Apparently a lady popped in and wanted to make a call to London one day, and everybody was surprised that she got through.
Henry was still working on the water at that time. He was a fisherman down there and he started to notice a bit of a change. I think April 1981, or whatever it was, was the first time the Murray mouth closed up. For the first time in recorded history not enough water getting down the river system to keep the mouth open.
After that he started to notice that they had started to lose a few species like the silver perch, which were the most prolific around the area, started to disappear, and the catfish went. Yabbies and the cockles started to go, and lots of birds like the muss ducks and the swans, which lived on the cockles, started to go as well. The Murray cod disappeared and the fresh water snails went, so the migratory birds that used to come all the way from Russia and Siberia, and places like that, stopped turning up.
That’s when Henry started getting involved in making people aware of what was going on around the area. He got on to every committee he possibly could, even the footy club, the local darts club, anything. He’d rock up there, get his darts out, and say, ‘Have you heard about the river, what’s going on in the river?’ So he started to spread the word and slowly over time he built up a reputation. In actual fact he refrained from calling himself a greenie, and he didn’t want to, because being a fisher person he’s a primary producer. He felt that the people that he was talking to, like the irrigators and all that, could relate more to a primary producer because they’re in the same business really.
He ended up at lots of meetings, and he said he used to get into a lot of trouble. He was saying that at one meeting one of the jokers came along to him and said, ‘Henry, you’re in a room full of friends, mate, and not a single one of them are yours.’ Along the way he gathered like-minded people and got on committees like the River Murray Advisory Committee and stuff like that. These were the people that were working in sync with trying to improve the Murray. He used to have prime ministers and politicians of all persuasion down there, and he never went left or right; he just focused on the Murray.
In actual fact, on the table we sat, which was the original house that he had built, he had had prime ministers, politicians and irrigators all sitting in his kitchen discussing what they can do to the Murray, and over time he gained a lot of respect for people. On the day the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was being announced, the then environment minister Tony Burke invited Henry over to Canberra to be his number one guest, but unfortunately Henry has cancer and he had a doctor’s appointment on that day. He’s on a new trial and things are getting better, thankfully.
Henry is positive about the future of the Murray, and the generations to follow. Yes, he believes that the plan isn’t the ‘be all and end all’ of it all but, as he said, ‘At least they’ve got a plan, so it’s the beginning of something.’ Nobody has to give up water because it’s an acquisition process, so people volunteer to sell their water. Nothing is taken away from anyone.
I’d just like to mention a couple of more people, and they were also mentioned this morning, was Tom and Ellen Trevarrow. Tom unfortunately has passed away since we interviewed him. That was sad, because he was a great human being. The day we all spent with him was something that will never leave us. Tom was a husband, father, brother, brother-in-law, papa, manager of the Camp Coorong Race Relations Cultural Education Centre and also maintained the Ngarrindjeri Cultural Museum, the chairperson of the Ngarrindjeri Land and Progress Association, the Ngarrindjeri Heritage Committee and the Regional Authority.
Tom was born in Meningie. Back in the days when he was born, they actually lived in camps out of Meningie because the white fellows didn’t want them to live in town and also the land had been taken away from them by the European people. They did not want to go into reservations or missions; they wanted their own autonomy. So they set up those little camps one, three, and I think five or seven miles out of town. They could look after themselves and they had proper spring water there which they could drink. They lived in shanty towns, which were made out of 44-gallon drums that had had bitumen in it. They just chopped them up, flattened them out and used them as shelters. They used wheat bags. But they were happy there because they had the water. They could have their native food - the kangaroo and wombats – and vegetation. Food was very plentiful around there.
The problem was that on Friday nights the white fellows in town would get on the turps, jump in their cars, come out and spin their cars around their camps and create a disturbance - let’s go and stir them black fellows up - such is the way of those that had plenty towards those that have so little. It was very moving being with Tom, because he was a very honest man.
I will have to skip through. The final one I want to mention is that we interviewed a father and son. The father was Gary Harrising who was very instrumental in the formation of the fishery around there, which is now a sustainable fishery. They have worked many years for that. He came from a line of fishers that went back through the Coorong for over 100 years, so he was entrenched. As I was saying before, these people are looking after what they’ve got down there and they’re passionate about what they’ve got down there. Even Robert, who’s Gary’s son, all he wants to be is a fisher person. That’s all he wants to be. His dad is a bit suss about it and said, ‘It’s not the kind of job where you can make money.’ So he’s got Robert off doing a mechanics course so he can get a job in a mining industry somewhere where he can make lots of money. We were talking to Robert, and he’s agreed to go off and get his mechanics licence. His dad’s happy about it too, because his dad thinks he’s going off into the mining and going to make a lot of money. But just between you and me, don’t tell his dad, the only reason he’s doing the mechanics licence is so that when he gets his fishing licence he can fix up the engine on the boat when it breaks down. Thank you. [applause]
GEORGE MAIN: Thanks, Bill, some great stories there. Our last speaker is Andrew Hull. [image shown] Here’s a great picture which Andrew sent through of his lanterns which were on the lake last night, but this is on the Darling. Over to you, Andrew.
ANDREW HULL: George is keenly aware that I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to be talking about today. He’s been sending me emails, prompting me, ‘What are you going to talk about? We’ll get some slides up, you’ll be able to talk to them. It’ll be interesting if you know what you’re going to talk about. People will like it much better if you know what you’re going to say.’ I think I know what I’m going to talk about now after the discussion that’s happened already today.
This project began for me - it was really interesting to read the original documentation about what they were looking for, and then to say to Lindy, ‘We’re sort of thinking of the ephemeral nature of stories.’ Stories have been really important for me - something Carmel said earlier was how stories belong in a place and exist in a place. For me, I’ve always had an interest in poetry, but for the first 25 years of my life that was English poetry. I like rhyming verse and that sort of stuff, so it was those English poets that made that consistent rhyming verse that attracted me, and I thought that was good. I had never really considered ‘Australian poetry’, for want of a better term.
In Bourke we have a thing called ‘the poet’s trek’ where we follow the footsteps of Henry Lawson out through this country that he travelled and that he had written a lot of poems about. As I look back through Henry Lawson’s poetry now, I see it’s just littered with references of the very brief time that he spent in Bourke, basically one summer over two years but not a whole 12-month period. Any town that Henry Lawson passed through, we’d claim it as ‘Henry Lawson’s town’. In Bourke there are festivals built around it. Lawson famously said, ‘If you know Bourke, you know Australia,’ and that’s the catch cry that the town builds its media on.
But I’d never understood his poetry, I’d never read it. To go out to these little locations such as the shearing shed where he’d literally sat and worked as a rousabout or a shed hand, and to read the things that he had written about that place, to go to these various sites - I had an incredible response to the way stories exist in a place. That’s what this opportunity for this project was for me, because I thought that it’s another way to grab more stories - not to gather more stories and put them in a place and hold them but also to try to give people an understanding of their stories and how valuable they are.
It’s something I’ve done on a few of the projects that I’ve worked on that go out to these little towns around western New South Wales that are shrinking up. These towns in many cases had 6,000 or 7,000 people in their heyday, and now they’re down to six or seven people and probably in another 50 years they won’t be there at all. They’re so rich with story, it’s important for me to go out and find a way to tell the people how important their stories are, to document them in some way and to create some sort of folk memory of them.
To build these lanterns, initially for this project we were going to write stories on little paper boats and then float those, but they just became impractical. I was thankful for the wonderful leadership and advice of our artistic director, the intrepid Donna Jackson, who said, ‘Let’s make it a bit better than that,’ and we ended up with these beautiful things. I’m thankful for that. It’s still the vehicle for the story, [image shown] and that’s sitting on the Darling River nested at Bourke just below the wharf.
I’m very conscious of the discussion that’s happened here today already about government policy and things like that. Bourke has this really interesting history in the national psyche as well as with government policy. The railway line, for example, came to Bourke in the late 1890s for one specific reason: it came there because at that time the key point of transport was river traffic so there were the paddle boats coming up and down the river. Bourke was a fabulously wealthy area for livestock production and wool primarily with huge, big, open grass plains filled up with stock – there’s another natural resource management issue there that we won’t go into. It was an incredibly productive area.
All that wealth was perceived to be travelling not into the coffers in Sydney – it could go overland to this. Here we’re talking government policy, federalism and state and state versus state as colonies in their own right. All this wealth was travelling straight out of the colony of New South Wales and into other colonies further down, into Victoria and into South Australia. So they quickly built this railway line through as another genius idea of government policy to be able to turn that wealth around and get it back into the colony where it existed. It meant that they drove past what could have been profitable mining towns if the railway line had called in there and went straight out to Bourke to grab this pastoral wealth. They made some terrible decisions on their way of how to build a railway line. Those other towns suffered those decision making processes.
Bourke is actually where the Australian Workers Union was formed with these massive shearer strikes that were going on around this time when there was all this really valuable product being generated in the area. It was making its way either down the river or up the railway line. There was a huge class of underrepresented people that [formed] the shearers union, then the Workers Union and now the ALP. I wonder what those guys would think if they saw who was in charge these days.
It is an incredibly interesting history and it’s a water history too - not at Bourke but down along the Darling River is where they had one of the most significant moments in union history where a bunch of union shearers burnt the paddle boat The Rodney just near the property Telano. It’s close to your country, in fact. There’s this existence of stories that perpetuate through, and also good or bad government decisions.
One of the other things I did with this project was not to just go and help people write their own stories in little boats, on lanterns or in different ways, but to also record, as Bill did, people’s actual stories verbatim. A couple of key people popped out for me in this one. Both of them have had passionate relationships with the river for about 20 years. One of them is an irrigation advocate by the name of Ian Cole, who’s a local bloke in Bourke, and the other bloke’s name is Peter Terrel, who has been trying to develop government policy around how to get more water back into the system.
Bourke as it exists in this spectrum of decision-making - because it’s remote and further out than most other places, it took a long time for irrigation to get out there. The MIA was well and truly established. They had good networks and irrigation channels well and truly built before anyone thought about doing irrigated cropping on the Darling River. Indeed, it didn’t happen until the late 1960s, and then right through the 1970s and 1980s was quite a very active development period.
Then when we think about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and these placards, in the 1990s was when big water reform came to New South Wales and that was hit very hard in western New South Wales. It’s a very expensive process to go through to build all these channels. In Bourke you’ve got to build water storages to store your water off-farm, because the river is unregulated. You’ve got to level your country and all this work, so it’s very expensive. At the time all this investment had been made by these irrigators, state-wide water reforms came in to put some water back into the system. This is separate to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan; this is a state-wide cap. We had huge protests at that time, I can assure you, with lots of these banners. The vegans were everywhere. It was a very interesting time for us, and that was barely repeated in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, I should I hasten to say.
The caps went through regardless. It meant something like a 90 percent reduction for that area in cap. The Bourke irrigators came to terms with that. They dealt with this process, they developed good relationships with the reform people. These processes went through after some bumps and grinds. At the same time just over the border, if you thought Bourke was further out as far as its development and we were 30 years behind the MIA, Queensland was just getting started. Western Queensland were saying, ‘You guys have got it. Just because we were a little bit later to develop, why don’t we get the same opportunities you’ve got to be prosperous?’
So at the same time as downstream huge reforms are taking place in New South Wales - literally downstream, you could almost throw a stone over to a different section of policy - huge swathes of country were just being opened up for irrigation in Queensland. It’s a great example of poor decision-making. Something that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has tried to overcome is to get all these people at the table and onboard. That’s meant a lot of rickety bumping and grinding along the way, and a lot of protest.
I’ll just wrap this up and tie in another thing if you don’t mind me, Vic, tying in your project ‘Tipping Point’. One of the images you’ve got in your project is Ouroboros, the snake or the serpent that eats itself. Here we are eating ourselves in this program. I spoke at a conference earlier this year called ‘Eco Arts’, trying to put the environmental issues in with arts, mix them up and try to get some better outcome for both groups. I chose to speak on Vic’s project, for want of a better term, but it was about government policy.
In New South Wales, we’ve been through this whole reform process - I suppose planning process - of updating our catchment action plans for what’s called the Regional Model for Natural Resource Management. It’s a huge process. There are 13 of these CMAs, catchment management authorities. We’re really well-resourced; we’ve got media people; we’ve got huge staffing structures; we’ve got cars to drive around in, offices that are air-conditioned, and we all get paid. We’re developing 13 different plans right across the country.
At the same time as your project was taking place, there was a planning process taking place in the Murrumbidgee catchment and also the Murray catchment. The Tipping Point project explores the difference between the two, or the tipping points within society and all this other sort of stuff. The parallel that I was drawing in this talk was the value of stories, and the difference between the way governments do this terribly and the way art can do it wonderfully.
The framework through which these planning processes takes place is called resilience theory. It’s essentially state and transitions. You have a state, you have another state, some room in between, and you transition from one state to another. So you have a healthy state and an unhealthy state. You need to quantify those, define them, work out what the transition process is, work out where you are along that line and what thresholds there are. Sounds like a tipping point? It’s a tipping point. We’re working out where the tipping points exist.
These Murrumbidgee and Murray catchment management authorities, I think when I looked at their website they had between 60 and 100 different consultations around the community. They were saying, ‘In total we’ve had over 300 people to our consultations’, after they did it 100 times. The other one was less than that: 120 people attended consultations on this process after they’d done it 60 times.
The contrast is these poor little meek and mild vegans with no resources, under the cruel leadership of Lindy Allen, being driven like dogs to work on this project. They are exploring tipping points in the very same area through art, with no resources, none of this underpinning framework, or anything like that, and they got over 400 people to their event to discuss these issues and to come along and be a part of that consultation process. So the governments are not doing it well. We’re not doing it well in spite of all the money that’s being thrown at this stuff.
I don’t know how to wrap it up from there. To draw it back to where we started, George, the whole uproar of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan didn’t make a big effect out where we were. Actually we did quite well out of it. But that was because of state government policies because we’d made a lot of those big cuts earlier. I think in some cases, we actually got a little bit more water than was planned. So there was no huge reduction. By and large, there wasn’t a lot of protest involved. There was a lot of angst involved in it. There was a lot of rallying: ‘Let’s get together because this is going to be terrible,’ but no one really knew what the document was. And then it wasn’t terrible so it quietly went its own way.
I think it’s self-evident by the Tipping Point project and by this whole One River project that, if we want to get into people’s ears and we want to start making some real headway with this stuff, we’re going to have to use a few more platforms and gathering the vegans together with their placards. [applause]
GEORGE MAIN: Thanks Andrew, that was great. It’s really interesting and quite significant that you have someone like yourself, who’s an artist, working in a bureaucracy in an NRM type environment. Hopefully you can help to start the shift in some of that culture, and allow some of the perspectives that have been generated here to have a presence in some of that decision-making process.
I was thinking too, Bill, with your experience with CSIRO and your scientific background, that you have now moved into this more cultural sphere, and again it’s those different ways of thinking and knowing about land, people and issues that are coming together in really interesting ways in your work. There should be more of it.
I will hand it over to the audience for them to ask some questions of the panel.
QUESTION: This has been wonderful. I really only got to know about the One River project because I personally know Richard Hodges. It’s been a great introduction into this world of art and what it’s capable of doing in terms of the creativity that I’ve observed. I live in Canberra and I’ve been a bit skeptical about what the hell Canberra’s got to do with the Murray-Darling. We don’t really exist on either.
But leading on from the first question in this afternoon’s session, since your work in the communities producing your own art has involved discussion about water and therefore touched on the topic of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, would you be optimistic that a combination of the work, the interviews, and the community involvement that your own activities have created, possibly plus the work of the second coming of the Murray-Darling Plan, has produced a positive future for the Murray-Darling Basin and finding a balance between industry in whatever form it comes - whether it tourism or whether it’s agriculture - and the long term management of the water and of the surrounding land? Because just the existence of healthy land and healthy water may not always make money, but it is inherently important to us as people since we are far more than physical beings.
VIC McEWAN: I think with our project and with all the projects that we do in our region, it’s about setting up the ability for people to have discussion and to reflect on their place in their place. One of the great successes of our project was that people were able to discuss not only the plan, but we also got really great feedback about this project and other projects we do, but this project in particular, allowing people to reflect, to dream and to think about their place and where they are. I think the benefits of this and approaching this with art goes beyond the water. It’s just about people’s place out in regional Australia. If we can continue to do these projects and use art as a mechanism to do this, it is going to have positive benefits when we look at individual topics such as water, because we’re giving people the permission to start dreaming and reflecting and having more open communication.
BILL MARSH: I think the term might be ‘awareness’. It’s a different way of making people aware of what’s going on through the arts instead of like a direct political attack or stream that’s happening. I think that’s fantastic. I’m not talking about our show, but Vic’s and Andrew’s, where people go and they’re entertained, they see things presented in a different way and in a different light. That, like Vic says, gets them thinking, and then through that thought process the discussion happens. It’s just like Henry here who fought for the river for 30 or 40 years, it was just little by little by little. He didn’t jump up and down, he just went along quietly and did his business. But through the arts you do open it up in a different way, and I think that’s the positive here.
ANDREW HULL: I certainly wouldn’t say that we’ve made it better for everyone from here on forward, but I would agree with Bill and Vic that what you can do is create a space where people can talk and if you do it often enough, they’ll keep coming to you. I’m not a church-going man - I can’t stand it and I always feel like I’m meant to struck down if I go near one - but every now and again I’m called to go to a wedding, someone’s christening or something like that in a church. I find myself when I’m in there being very reflective just by virtue of the meditation of sitting quietly and with the music that goes on. That sort of happens organically when I’m in a church. What I can’t stand when I’m in a church, particularly for a wedding or something like that, is a priest who says, ‘I’ve got a church full of people, I’m really going to hit them with it now. I’m going to take some converts while they’re all here.’ I think there’s a parallel in there in this. If you can create the space and people come to that space, then they’ll make their own decisions within that space. Even if it’s not the hard message that’s being driven home by policy or any of these other bigger issues that need to be discussed, we’ll create the space for you, and you’ll make your own decisions along the way.
GEORGE MAIN: I think that’s a great point to end on. That’s really what I think the Museum does: it enables a space for people to come and reflect and build their own ideas and meanings. That is an ideal that this institution is striving towards. I will now hand over to Kirsten. Please could you thank our panel again for a great discussion. [applause]
KIRSTEN WEHNER: Thank you so much. I wanted to very quickly wrap up because we’re bit over time to say a few thank you’s. First of all, thank you to my colleagues at the Museum, particularly Luke and Alex in community outreach and our fabulous media services team who have worked so hard to make today happen. A very, very big thank you to the One River team, and congratulations particularly to Lindy and to Malcolm for convening and developing a fabulous symposium today. It’s really been a privilege for the Museum to be associated with the project and be able to be involved with it.
Last but not least, we owe a very great round of congratulations and appreciation to all of our panellists and speakers today. I’m not going to name everybody because there’s been quite a few of us. It’s been such a privilege to be able to hear all of those ideas and thoughts and fabulous energy and passion going into building stories around the Murray-Darling Basin.
As a final note, I remind you to check out both the One River website http://oneriver.com.au/ to learn more about the project and the Museum website to learn more about and the Murray-Darling Basin http://www.nma.gov.au/history/pate/murray_darling_basin_and_the_national_museum and just a reminder for everybody to travel home safely. Thank you all very much for coming along and making today so special. [applause]
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Date published: 11 November 2013